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Amazon Echo Dot Review: A Smart Alarm Clock

I have been a tech enthusiast for as long as I can remember. I love fiddling with the latest and greatest. So when the Amazon Echo line-up launched in India, I had to get my hands on one. I went for the smaller Echo Dot as I was not convinced of its usefulness. As It turned out, I was right. Another reason for buying the smallest of the bunch had to do with the sound quality. Time and time again reviewer kept saying that the Echo speakers sound average. So there wasn't any reason pay extra for a bigger speaker. I bought the Echo Dot for discounted price of ₹3,149.00. It came with 1 year Prime membership.
Amazon Echo Dot
Amazon Echo Dot
The setup process was a big hassle. You need to install the Alexa app to set up your Echo device. The app is as bad as any other app from Amazon. It just wouldn't detect my Echo Dot. It took me about an hour to finish the setup. Once the setup was done, I started off with simple question like, how's the weather? What's the time? Alexa answered them without breaking a sweat. But when it came to continued conversations, Alexa just fell apart. It couldn't keep up the context. And the fact that one has to keep saying "Alexa" every time, made the conversation feel unnatural. Hopefully things will get better with software updates.

Alexa's smart home capabilities excited me the most. But there aren't many Alexa-enabled devices available in the market. There are a couple of bulbs, universal remote controllers and plugs. That's about it. I bought a 7W Syska LED bulb. I had high hopes. But my experience was mixed. It was difficult to set up as well. The Syska app had a hard time detecting my bulb. Quirky setup seems to be a theme here. Once connected, the smart light can be controlled from the Syska app, or the Alexa app or using Alexa voice commands. You can ask Alexa to turn it on or off, change the brightness or set a different color. There's a list of colors to choose from. However custom colors can only be set from the Syska app. The Syska app also allows you to schedule automatic turn on and turn off times.

Screenshot of the Alexa mobile app
Bulb Control View (Alexa App)
One has to give credit to Amazon. The underlying infrastructure is pretty solid. The latency of smart home devices is very low. The bulb react almost instantly. But not everything is rainbows and unicorns. The bub isn't as bright as I would have liked. And suppose you ask Alexa to turn off the bulb. Now if the electricity goes out and comes back after a few minutes, the bulb will turn on automatically. It doesn't revert to the last state. This is such an inconvenience. You wouldn't want your bulb to turn on in the middle of the night, or when you're out. The way to prevent this is to turn off the switch; which defeats the purpose of a smart bulb somewhat.

Integration with Other Services
Amazon makes a big deal out of its far-field voice recognition technology. Echo Dot's seven microphones are supposed to work from across the room, even in noisy environments. But I'm here to tell you that they are not good at all. Even in quiet environments, Alexa's voice recognition is not that great. It fails 3/4 out of 10 times. And the moment it gets noisy, the microphones just fall apart. You ask it to play a song and it plays something else. You ask it to set reminders and it gives you facts from Wikipedia. It could be because of my India accent; who knows. But the Google Assistant understands my commands just fine.

Incase you needed proof
There are little things that add up to be quite annoying. For example,
  • If you ask Alexa to calculate (10000 / 2) * (5000 / 2) + 1, while answering it will repeat the expression then tell you the answer. Not helpful when you're looking for a quick answer
  • Let's say you were listening to a song and you tell it to "repeat the last song", Alexa will start playing "Hindi chartbusters from Saavn"
  • I have an alarm set for 09:00 every weekday. When I say "cancel today's alarm", it turns off the alarm all together; not just for today.
On top of these quirks, the Alexa companion app is not that good. It feels sluggish. It's always loading one thing or other. It feels like a web app in a native shell.

On the bright side, Alexa can do some pretty neat things. Like,
  • It can read out your Kindle books. But the pronunciations are robotic. And there's no way to change the reading speed. I feel that this should have been a feature of the Kindle app not of Alexa.
  • It can play songs from Saavn or Prime Music. It can also play radio stations from TuneIn.
  • It can add items to your shopping list which syncs with the Amazon app.
  • It can set reminder, alarms and timers.
  • There are also gimmicks like Alexa calling which I'm skeptical about. As it stands right now, I see no reason why anyone would choose Alexa calling over a phone call. There are creepy features like Drop-In, which lets contacts to connect to your device without a request. Fortunately you can turn it off!
  • One of the more interesting features are routines, which performs multiple actions when you say a phrase. For example, you can say "good night" so that your lights turn off and Alexa wishes you good night.
  • The smart home features let you control Alexa compatible bulbs, smart plugs, universal remotes, Fire TV Stick etc. The choices aren't that many. And honestly, these smart devices are somewhat expensive. You can also create groups to control multiple devices at once.
  • It can inform you about the weather, tell facts, play games, tell you which movies are playing near you etc.
You can expand Alexa's capabilities by enabling skills created by 3rd party developers. Some skills worth considering are Saavn, TED Talks, Uber, Ola and Zomato. You can do even more by linking other services via IFTTT. Out of curiosity, I also published a Alexa Skill. You can check it out here.

Now that the honeymoon period is over, I don't use the Echo Dot that often. Sure, it can help you with information, reminders, timers and whole 9 yards. But I can do all of that on my phone. And I can do them more easily and quickly. I can't help but wonder how bad the voice recognition is. I don't trust Alexa with critical things like reminders and alarms. There is no way to lock Alexa down so that it responds to my voice only. Anyone can come and mess up my alarms, reminders, lists and so on. I haven't tested the Google Home. But I don't think there's much value in a home assistant/smart speaker at present. My experience may have been different if I had a Fire TV Stick or a multi-room audio setup, or more devices and services that connected to Alexa. But for now, it's just an alarm clock with a voice.

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